At the beginning of the year, European Commissioner Viviane Reding proposed that, as part of the review of European Union privacy laws, there should be a new right to be forgotten [more information here]. The notion has proved controversial with the Harvard Law Review calling it “the biggest threat to free speech on the Internet in the coming decade”.
Believe it or not, this debate around the ownership and control of electronic data popped into my mind in a cinema recently when I was watching the summer blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises” [my review here]. In this movie, the Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) character, played by Anne Hathaway, seeks a program called “Clean Slate”.
According to Batman, Clean Slate works by typing in one’s name and date of birth and then the program deletes everything about you held on any electronic data base – presumably connected to the Net – anywhere in the world. In Catwoman’s case, this would allow her to turn her back on a life of spectacular cat burglaries and start a fresh life with Bruce Wayne (aka The Batman).
I suppose that we could agree on the extremes of a right to be forgotten. If a drunken student puts photographs of his antics on Facebook and subsequently wishes to delete them, he should have that right. If a master criminal wishes to delete all record of his crimes from police data bases, he should not have any right to do so.
But there are so many cases in between. If a friend of the drunken student has put that picture on her Facebook page, should the student have the right to have her material deleted? If a politician wishes to have his speech supporting public healthcare deleted because he now holds a more Right-wing position, should he have the right to do so? How long should someone’s criminal record be publicly accessible before they are given a chance to start a new life?
Suppose the data in question does not belong to you? Should you have the right to delete an offensive or hurtful comment about you on somebody’s Twitter account? Should you have the right to delete all the data on your purchases held by your local supermarket? How long should Google be allowed to store the information on every web site that you have visited?
Whose data is it anyway?